Reducing Stress by Learning the difference between Urgent Tasks and Important Tasks

I have a love/hate relationship with the rubbish truck. To be fair it’s not really the rubbish truck’s fault. I feel so satisfied on the days when our bins are emptied, I’ve managed to get to all those fiddly little wastepaper baskets and bathroom bins around the house and even made sure that the correct bin is at the top of the driveway at the right time, on the right day. On those days I love that truck.

Today was a good day, I ‘got the bins right!’ Not like the past three weeks when there was confusion over the recycling, we had a break for Christmas and we had to rummage up an extra bin for the bags that were piling up. This just leaves me fuming at the fleeing back of the disappearing truck and adds to the general pile-up of life chaos that I really could do without.

These past few days have been crazy, stuffed full with meetings and activities and last minute changes to the schedule. On days like these when I am running from one thing to the next and juggling a hundred balls I am tempted to panic.

If I do, my mind goes blank, I end up double booking myself and stressing over all the things I need to do. Adjustments to my routine can totally throw me and if I don’t write things down I end up forgetting the things I had already agreed to do.

When that happens I either get annoyed and disappointed with myself for letting somebody else down, or I am irritable and annoyed with the person who requested that I make the change to my schedule.

Generally speaking I’ve found that being annoyed with myself or others isn’t ideal!

The evening times are the most pressurised times. When the kids have just come in from school, there’s homework to be done, dinner to be made, dishes to be washed, the fire to be lit (in the winter), pets to be fed, laundry to be folded, extra murals to be slotted in and two evenings a week night classes to attend (myself). With four kids in three different schools and all doing a couple of after school activities there is a lot on the calendar.

Quite often we have an international student staying with us who needs lifts to and from various venues and I do a few hours before and afterschool care a week too. This means there may be 8 people in the household and I’m the one mapping out the route.

With all the things on my plate it can be a relief to escape to the adult calm of a classroom – in fact escape to school feels like a bit of a holiday for me on those days.

Sometimes I get asked how do I appear so calm and how do I do it all! I do struggle and often snap at my kids but I’ve also learned some skills along the way and hopefully they’ll be useful to you to.

So far I’ve mentioned a bunch of negative words like panic, stress, annoyance, irritability, disappointment and escape. These are all distracting destination words that I have been to and still occassionally visit if I don’t stick to the measures I’ve put in place to stay calm and stay the course.

Last year I wrote a post about Beating the Overwhelm which contains 15 ways I put into practice to help with managing stress and varying demands.

In this post I’d like to briefly look at this one point I made in that post: Proritise the tasks as to what is most important – learn the difference between urgent tasks and important tasks.

One of the commonest lies we are led to believe is the statement ‘I don’t have enough time’! We all have the same amount of time in our days, everybody gets 24 hours. Now, admittedly some people have less demands on their lives, like retired folk, athough not necessarily(!) and toddlers. Kids certainly have fewer responsibilities and not that many urgent or important tasks that have to be attended to.

If we say we don’t have enough time, but it’s something that’s important that needs to be done, we need to take a careful look at everything we are doing and ascertain which of those things takes greatest priority in our lives.

Some things are more important than others or we attribute importance to some things over others, but these are not necessarily the same things.

On the whole there is an element of choice over how we fill the hours we have. Sometimes there are decisions that we make that add to an already heavy burden we are bearing. If we try and take on any more responsibilites we could end up being crushed under the weight.

If someone asks you do help with an important task, and you feel it is something you need to, or would like to do, you’ll have to try and figure out how to squash it in to an aready bursting schedule. If that’s the case, something else may have to give but not necessarily! It’s not always easy figuring out whether this is the case.

Knowing how to determine the difference between urgent tasks and important tasks is a valuable skill to have when you’re under pressure to make quick decisions or are under time contraints.

If you have this figured out though, it is the one biggest factor that will help reduce stress and enable you to remain calm – and even good natured!!

When you’re really busy you have little time to think about what needs to be done next, you simply have to do the next most urgent thing.

We all have important things to do but they are not always the most urgent thing right in front of us right now.

First let’s take a look at figuring out the important things:

As a simple exercise, take a (large) piece of paper and draw three columns down the middle. In the left hand column write the heading ‘crazy list’ and in it, list all the areas of responsibility in your life, just throw down – absolutely everything you do, as well as all the things you’d like to do e.g. time to take up a hobby/class/exercise/write a book. Have a careful look over this list and spend some time writing it to make sure you have it all down.

It may be a very long list and look completely overwhelming, I told you you’d need a large piece of paper!

In the central column write the heading ‘important list’. Rewrite your list from the left roughly in the order of importance. Don’t worry too much about getting this absolutely in order. At the top of the list place the things that require the most amount of time and energy. This is helpful because if you have a lot going on in your life, it will help you to determine which areas are the most important to you, where your values lie and what you need to save your limited resources of time, energy and money for. It also helps you see whether there are things there that are not consistent with what you’d like to prioritse in your life so that you can shift them further down the list.

Check your list, and ask yourself whether all the things you have specified as important are the things that are consistant with your worldview. e.g. if family is important, how much time do you spend building and strengthening those relationships?

Now in the right hand column write your ‘dream list’ or ‘wish list’. Go back over your central list and rewrite it according to what you’d like to prioritise in your life based on what you know to be most vauable.

Important: Is there anything on that list that doesn’t need to be there?

Have a look at the list again and determine whether you can remove anything and also, should you add anything?

Have you included any activities which supply you with a renewed source of life and energy?

If you would like to make this dream list a reality, how realistic are you being? Have you factored in activites and time that give you rest? Allow yourself that rest as it is what enables you to embrace the entirety of the list. If you have added in time for restoration, you may surprise yourself by being able to actually add activities or people to your list, as you now have more joy and resilience.

Now that you have created a ‘wish list’ and know what your priorities are, when you hit a crazy busy hectic patch in your life you can use this as the framework to make decisions.

This is valuable because the most important thing in your life may NOT be the most urgent task requiring your attention right now!

Here’s a simple question I ask myself when I feel there’s too much to do next: ‘What’s the next best thing?’

If I ask that question, then in my mind I can quickly scan through the demands on me in that moment and determine which thing is most urgent right then.

Urgent tasks can be quite low on the importance list, like the dustbins! Bins are definitely not a high priority in my life, I don’t have the household refuse way up there in my valuable category. Yet it can be an urgent matter to get that wheely bin up to the end of the driveway, and you may see me flapping along in my slippers when I hear the truck trundling along the road.

And OH, if I miss it I’m so annoyed!! The bin overflows and I’m waving magpies away or cleaning up yukky bits of trash after the birds have picked the excess bags apart for the rest of the week.

Missing the rubbish truck can then put me in a bad mood that stays with me for rest of the day, and it’s such a silly little thing!

The trick is, when things pile on top of me, is to stop and pause for a minute and just ask that one simple question:

What’s the next best thing?

Asking that helps to just put everything into perspective, to know what to do next, and to keep calm!

The biggest problem with urgent tasks is that they can consume your life and put you in a panic! You definitely don’t want to be spending your days being stressed because you’re running from one urgent thing to the next, especially if they are silly things like running for the rubbish truck.

This is why spending some time thinking about your priorities and then planning is absolutely critical. If you have everything mapped out then you can anticipate most things, and then also as best as you can, absorb the unexpected.

It goes without saying that there will always be the element of surprise in life, but once it is attended to, you can take a breather and step back to focus on what’s important.

Now I’m off to update the rubbish collection schedule before I forget which bin needs to go out next week!

Finally, and very practically, two helpful tools I can’t live without are a notice board and my diary.

  1. The notice board is one that I can write on and that the whole family can see, it has all the fixed activities for the week written under each day’s heading. For extra organisation you could colour code each person.
  2. My diary includes these activities but also contains extra events that are not weekly, like parent teacher meetings, concerts, parties etc. I have to be disciplined and record everything in my diary and also check it before I commit to anything so that I know how to slot things in. I prefer a small book type diary that fits in my handbag so that I always have it with me but you may prefer to use your phone or an online scheduler.

I hope this post has been helpful? Let me know how you manage with juggling responsibilities in your life, have you tried these tips or do you have any to add? I’d love to hear in the comments below.

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18 thoughts on “Reducing Stress by Learning the difference between Urgent Tasks and Important Tasks”

  1. justmuddlingthroughlife

    Good advice! I stress loads, balancing kids, husband, working and writing.. the home, the bills, life… everything. we used to have a notice board but the children kept writing on it.. now we have a picture hung where the board was.. we have given up! great post, has got me thinking now!

  2. Kate 🍷 (@TheMumConundrum)

    I need this RIGHT NOW!! I’m up to my eyeballs in everything and have no idea where to start. All I need to do now is remember where I put my spare paper….
    #ItsOk xxx

  3. What a great post! It is so very important to prioritze in the crazy, chaotic mess of a world! Especially with littles in tow. One thing I do that really helps is, if something takes less than 2 minutes to do, JUST DO IT. The reason is because it only takes two minutes, and then, it never makes it on a list! You feel accomplished and less harried! Brill! #itsok xoxo

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